Brian Graham‘s journey from his birthplace of Glace Bay, Nova Scotia to New York City bgan in the early 1980’s when he met the famed photographer Robert Frank, who for many years has spent his summers in the Maritimes. Sensing that Graham was curious about photography, Frank invited him to New York City. While he began with carpentry work at Frank’s Bleecker Street apartment, it eventually led to helping Frank in the darkroom. “I learned how to print with Robert in the darkroom, which was really something.” Graham eventually established his own reputation as both a photographer and a printer. He began printing Allen Ginsberg’s photographs soon after he met the poet through Frank in the mid 1980’s
This interview was conducted in late winter 2017 in Graham’s East Village apartment
JS: Do you remember when you first met Allen?
BG: It was through Robert Frank that I first met Allen. He’d gotten interested in photography again and retrieved his negatives from Columbia University where they had been in storage since 1968. Raymond Foye organized everything and started working with the photos, but printing pictures wasn’t really his thing. I didn’t have any work at the time, so Allen and Robert say, “Well, here’s a job for you.” I didn’t know how long it was going to last – I didn’t care. I was just around doing drywall and painting, and happy to be here in New York.
I met Raymond one evening, at his place in the Chelsea Hotel. He had been making some small prints and contact sheets. He had barely touched the bulk of the material. Right away I started making small prints, and Allen, he had these little point-and-shoot cameras and he’d take more and more pictures. Pretty soon I’d be going there, to Allen’s 12th Street apartment, and he’d pass me a plastic shopping-bag full of thirty rolls of film to process, to make contact sheets. I picked up my first work from Allen on April Fool’s Day in 1984. I was a bit afraid to meet the big poet and say the wrong thing. He asked me, “How’s the sex in Nova Scotia?”
JS: When you gave him back the contact sheets, what would he do with them?
BG: He’d have his contact sheets, he’d look at them, and then he’d go to visit Robert, and Robert would look at them and say, “Print that one, but cut this off, crop it this way.” So we followed Robert’s advice. And actually it was helpful to me too because that’s one of the important things I learned from Robert: the whole picture, you don’t need to print that. You can take out anything. Allen took his advice and gave me the notes to work from.
Allen would use different magnifying aides to study those little photos on the 8 x 10 inch contact sheets. But then he realized he could get them bigger, so I started to make larger 11 x 14 inch contact sheets. On the back of the contact sheet, he would make notes on which images to print. That’s how he used to work. He shot a lot of rolls of film – dozens of his kitchen window in all the seasons.
JS: I assume you also worked on printing many of the iconic ones from the 1950’s
BG: I worked on those – in the beginning, that’s all I printed. There were a few new rolls at the beginning but the first thing I did were those: Kerouac on the fire escape, the Tangier pictures, Neal Cassady and Natalie Jackson under the marquee. I printed this image many many times. I could probably do it in my sleep.
JS: What kind of shape were the negatives in?
BG: A lot of people think they’re scratched too much or not in good shape. At first, I would spent hours and hours spotting out the scratches, tracing them with a spotting brush. But after a while, that’s the way they were and that’s the character of the picture today. Some, like the Tangiers pictures, were scratched a lot, lines from people handling them too much or processing them. So that’s just the way they are. It doesn’t bother me.
JS: Were they difficult to print? Were they too light? too dark?
BG: Allen always managed to do something good, better than just with a plastic camera. They were glass lenses, they were decent cameras that he took the pictures with. And he somehow knew that these pictures were going to be important. Sometimes you wonder how people know that, but of course everything was important to him, with his personal life he made it important to him
There were a bunch of negatives that were rolled up, they were curled, and they had stayed that way, and I had to make contact sheets out of them. They were really a drag because you couldn’t hold them down to put them on the glass. It was hard, and they were badly scratched. They were still printable, they were all printed.
to be continued